Carbon Offsetting: the challenge of cleaning up one mess without making another...
Andrew Clark 24//4/23
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According to the IPCC’s latest publication, by 2030 we need to have reduced our total greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of what they were in 2019 in order to stand a chance of holding global warming at 1.5º (and by 2040 if we want to prevent it exceeding 2º).
So by now you should have reduced your total GHG emissions by about 20% of what they were 4 years ago. How’s that going?
Are you on track for making those reductions?
No? You should be offsetting to at least make up the shortfall.
Yes? You could still be offsetting.
But what is offsetting?
We all have an environmental footprint. Everything has an environmental footprint. Offsetting is just negating that footprint, so that overall you have had no negative impact – it’s as simple as that.
For carbon, it involves working out how much carbon dioxide (equivalent) you’re responsible for contributing to the atmosphere, and undertaking some action that removes that much carbon from the atmosphere. It’s the same with plastic – you work out how much plastic waste you’re responsible for, and then you facilitate the removal of that much plastic from the environment so that, when all is said and done, it’s like you contributed no plastic to the environment.
Back on carbon, offsetting is a fundamental component to all NET ZERO targets – such as the UK government’s target of being Net Zero by 2050. This target is in line with the Paris agreement, and involves substantial carbon reductions of around 80% of what they were in 2019, but there’s no pretense that the UK could ever achieve GROSS ZERO greenhouse gas emissions. What’s left, after substantial reduction efforts, needs to be offset to achieve NET zero (more on the how and why of that later).
The concept of offsetting can be applied in many scenarios, from carbon to plastic to biodiversity and habitat loss – and it boils down to this: if you make a mess, you clean it up.
What’s wrong with that?
Some people dislike offsetting, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it’s seen as a ticket to keep polluting without making reductions – after all, if you’re prepared to put in the work to clean it up, why not make a big ol’ mess?
This is, to a degree, a valid criticism – but unless you take it with a pinch of salt you’ll find the need to also object to the concepts of speeding tickets or fines for excessive noise pollution as, if you’re rich enough, they’re not so much deterrents as they are just the [affordable] price to pay for breaking the law. It does seem unfair but, for offences that don’t really merit jail-time, it’s about the best we’ve got (short of tackling gross inequalities anyway). So yeah it’s frustrating, but it’s not a valid reason to boycott the entire concept of offsetting.
A slightly more valid criticism of offsetting is that it’s open to exploitation – at worst you could believe that you were paying for offsetting but your money isn’t used as it should be and some hustler’s just making-off with your cash (like with any other market), and even in the case of ‘legitimate’ offsetting projects there are better and worse ways to go about it – how do you know you’re not just throwing your money away on an ineffective, albeit well-meaning, scheme? Well, that’s a question I’m happy to answer more thoroughly.
In an ideal world…
First of all though, let me paint a picture of the ideal world to which we’re aspiring.
Humanity wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with if environmental damage was fully accounted for, and those guilty of causing damage tasked with cleaning it up. This is what’s known as the Polluter Pays Principle, and it’s a cornerstone of sustainability – not currently legally applied to carbon throughout the supply chain.
In this ideal world, Polluter Pays would make environmentally-damaging activities more expensive, and the polluter would either have to absorb the cost into their profit margin or, like any other overhead, factor it into their pricing structure and pass the cost down the supply chain. Apply the principle throughout the supply chain and the basic cost of a product’s manufacture is compounded with environmental-cleanup costs, and that cost is passed on to the end consumer – thereby establishing a viable carbon-based market.
But that’s not the way things currently work – though it’s widely agreed an absolute necessity for facilitating a low-carbon future.
So offsetting is a way to apply the Polluter Pays principle, in the here and now – wherever you are in a supply chain. It’s a means to bring about the world that we want – and need – to live in.
Furthermore, if the price of offsetting something like carbon is adequately high, it will directly incentivise companies to start making the necessary reductions in emissions (provided they’re taking the climate crisis seriously enough to commit to carbon neutrality). For some businesses, depending on their turnover and carbon footprint, the price range in the general voluntary carbon market is severe enough – for others, it’s so affordable to them that it fails to exert any kind of pressure to actually change behaviors (but that doesn’t have to stop them offsetting and being carbon-neutral anyway!).
Some of the most proactive companies in the world though, have taken matters into their own hands and imposed their own, internal carbon tax based on figures that actually make them squirm. Disney, Shell and Microsoft were some notable early-adopters of this ideology. At least two of those businesses quite possibly make your skin crawl when you think about the colossal environmental impact that they have on the world, and I’m not saying I’m a fan either – but it’s only thanks to them applying substantial internal carbon taxes that they’ve been able to get well ahead of the curve and get their net emissions well on-track towards zero for over a decade.
Because really, while we do need to dramatically reduce global emissions immediately, it doesn’t matter if you’re responsible for some emissions as long as you negate them. You can burn some coal, you can fly a private jet, your cows can flatulate freely; just find a way to negate the climate impacts of that in the here and now.
Critics might complain that it’s not fair that some people can afford to do this while others can’t. But what’s important to recognize here is that they’re not complaining that offsetting’s not fair; they’re just complaining that the world’s not fair. And I agree, it’s not, and we have a duty to change that. But how unfair the world is is fundamentally a different argument and shouldn’t be used to muddy the waters around whether offsetting is a viable pursuit. It’s literally half the battle against climate change, in spite of and because of the world that we live in, and there’s no changing that.
How to do it right
There are two types of carbon offsetting that effectively negate the emissions that you’ve contributed to the atmosphere:
Emissions Reductions are a means of facilitating the reduction of emissions elsewhere – for example, helping developing nations to access low-carbon energy instead of burning coal or charcoal. By investing in such projects, you’re helping to prevent additional GHG emissions (equivalent to your previous contribution) from hitting the atmosphere.
Carbon Removal projects address the CO2 already in the atmosphere, aiming to suck it back out again. Trees are the best example of this – they actively remove carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
There are other nature-based means of carbon removal as well as trees – peatlands and saltmarshes are vital ecosystems that act as tremendous carbon sinks when they’re fully-functioning (and huge sources of greenhouse gasses when they’re not), so some carbon removal projects work at restoring these damaged ecosystems to full functionality.
Unfortunately natural sequestration takes time and, realistically, there’s not enough free land to facilitate the removal of atmospheric carbon at the scale necessary to combat climate change – so more artificial means of removing carbon are needed as well. These are generally called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) projects, and while they’re a great idea, the technology needs substantial investment and refinement to make an impact.
Which is better, offsetting through reduction or removal? Both. If, globally, we were to just focus on just decarbonizing our existing infrastructures to reduce carbon emissions; or if we were to just focus on restoring nature, or just on mechanically sucking carbon from the atmosphere, we’d still be up sh*t creek. What the world needs is active reduction in emissions with simultaneous restoration of nature-based climate-stabilising processes, along with investment in CCS technology to help speed things along even more.
These different approaches to offsetting aren’t three alternate solutions to one problem; the problem is chaotic and multi-faceted, and we need to attack it from every angle to mitigate the impacts as much as possible.
What’s gone wrong?
Over the last few decades, lots has been done under the guise of carbon reduction or offsetting that hasn’t stood up to scrutiny. Remember, reduction and offsetting are equally important in the challenge of reaching net-zero emissions.
Some national-level reductions in emissions have unfortunately led to greater emissions globally. To use a home example; the UK’s made great leaps in decarbonizing industry and thereby “reducing” our national carbon footprint – at least, that’s the rose-tinted view of things. In reality the UK’s shut-down a lot of local industry, notably in carbon-intensive sectors like cement and steel, reducing the amount of GHG’s released within UK boarders – but crucially has not simultaneously reduced national demand for cement and steel. We outsourced production overseas, generally to nations with notoriously lower environmental standards, got them to undertake the production and nominally shoulder the carbon footprint, and then ship those exceptionally heavy products back across the world to UK shores. So before you or anyone else claims how much China or India are to blame for having such enormous carbon footprints, take a look at where all the stuff you buy or own or depend on is manufactured.
This has been the most perverse form of offsetting to date. When we talk generally about carbon offsetting we’re talking about accepting a mess that we’ve made here and facilitating the clean-up of a mess somewhere else. But huge national “reductions” have been made by acting like we’re cleaning things up here, while just moving the mess somewhere else. It’s not just sweeping the mess under the rug, it’s sweeping the mess into somebody else’s house and calling them dirty. And it completely ignores the fact that we all live under the same global climate.
These problems mostly occur in the ‘posterchild’ nature-based offsetting market; trees are pretty, easy for lay people to understand and make you feel good. But how do you measure the effectiveness of trees?
Moreover, how can you appropriately demonstrate that investing in some trees isn’t doing more harm than good?
The worst case scenario is that if we over-hype trees, particularly in developing parts of the world with great capacity for trees – take Brazil for example – what’s to stop trees being held to ransom? The Amazon rainforest is one of Earth’s greatest assets (by any metric), but what if the people who live and work there were to say “give us cash or we’ll burn it all down.”? (That’s a slightly gross example, but it’s a hypothetical situation not far from reality).
Earth’s natural assets need protecting, but the best way to do that hasn’t yet been found.
Furthermore, all such projects require a level of trust and accountability – and what’s to stop unscrupulous folk selling an area of felled rainforest as an “offsetting” project, planting some trees, and then 10 years later razing it to the ground and selling it as offsetting again? Even if most projects have greater integrity and impact that this, bad-eggs give the whole concept a bad name, and they certainly go to show how much uncertainty is involved.
Choosing Offsetting that really works
Critics of offsetting are widespread and vocal. Some are the malign forces of the climate-denial movement; some are well-meaning souls just trying to do right – and so they should. After all, it’s the fate of the world on the line here, and we don’t have time or resources to waste!
While it’s important to note that critics do sometimes have a leg to stand on when it comes to offsetting projects done badly, they rarely have much to complain about when it comes to projects done right. So here’s what to look for to assess – and share – the credibility of legitimate carbon offsetting projects:
Check that the project generating carbon credits (ie. Tons you can purchase to offset) is ADDITIONAL – ie. It wouldn’t otherwise be happening.
Examples of this include:
- Helping communities in developing nations transition to low-carbon stoves.
- Woodland creation under the UK’s Woodland Carbon Code (ONLY verifies tree planting that would not otherwise be undertaken eg. Changing grazing pasture providing income to carbon storing woodland).
Check for TRANSPARENCY and INDEPENDENT VERIFICATION – if a project publishes publicly accessible activity and impact reports, offers further information when asked, and bears credentials as having been reviewed by and independent credible assessor that found the project to be compliant with international standards (such as Gold Standard, VERRA, Carbon Trust, Woodland Carbon Code or Peatland Code, etc.).
Furthermore, you can ensure credibility in your own claims of carbon neutrality by choosing offsetting projects that meet these criteria – particularly point ii – and by having your own carbon accounting independently verified by an appropriate authority, such as Net Zero Eyecare, Carbon Trust, etc.
I’d also recommend playing to your strengths and looking honestly at your contribution to the climate and ecological crises, and commit to cleaning up your impact in the most direct way. By which I mean, if you’re responsible for a lot of deforestation, look first and foremost at credible re-forestation projects. If however, as I suspect is likely for most people reading this, your footprint comes more from internal combustion engines and plastic manufacturing, inefficient supply chains, cavalier approaches to “waste” and inherent over-consumption of resources, ignore trees and focus on social and infrastructure-based offsetting projects. Focus on the difference you can make, physically or metaphorically, closest to home.
Thereby, you’re not only alleviating anyone’s concerns over the integrity of the projects you’ve supported, you’re also standing up to – or even pre-empting – any claims against you of greenwashing.
On the subject of Greenwashing...
The “ticket to continue business as usual” is one of the strongest and most pressingly valid criticisms of carbon offsetting – far too many companies (not to mention nations) are pursuing offsetting while ignoring their responsibility to also help reduce gross emissions.
My first thought on this is a little cynical – if a business is going to continue their activity unchanged either way, I’d rather they carry on doing as they are AND offset their footprint, than just carry on regardless!
But that doesn’t really address the issue, and I don’t wish to pretend that it’s OK for businesses to continue “as usual” without knuckling down and making real reductions as well.
So the best thing you can do on top of carbon offsetting is drive it home with a comprehensive Carbon Reduction Plan, including tangible and realistic targets and dates by which you’ll have achieved them.
That’s how you demonstrate you’re taking this crisis seriously, and acting to the fullest extent of your abilities.
Done right, Offsetting’s a win-win-win, no-regrets course of action
The climate crisis is just one crisis amid many, each desperately seeking resolution.
Nature-based carbon offsetting projects can immediately address the climate and biodiversity crises, but if orchestrated well they can also contribute to a number of other sustainability objectives – from creating jobs to nurturing healthy communities to cleaning water and much more.
Meanwhile you get to enjoy benefits in your own life – customers and employees alike are increasingly seeking purpose-driven conscientious companies, and achieving carbon neutrality (or “Net Zero” at the company scale) is a powerful way of showing you’re not just forward-thinking but are prepared to invest in making the world a better place.
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